Activist, No Longer “Act(ing) As If”

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what I made for the Women’s March on NY

A roaring tsunami of peacefully protesting pink pussy-hatted women (and men! and kids!) washed over the planet last Saturday. I was one drop in that ocean, finally finding my voice after forty-five years of legal adulthood, where I was (mostly) not rocking the boat / being seen but not heard / being a “good girl” instead of a “nasty woman.” I now intend on being an active, not passive, voice in what is a truly terrifying time in our nation’s history.

Here is one tributary of that pink wave, the one I was a part of in the Women’s March On NY.

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I had already been commissioned in the past year to do some activist art for YogaCityNYC. The first was to address sexual harassment in the yoga world, a symbolic illustrative logo to accompany several articles and a community discussion.

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Then came an illustration for a Vagina Scrum)

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and finally, now that the election is over (and the P****Grabber-In-Chief is still whining and tweeting and in denial about his 3 million + loss in the popular vote), this:

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Every week, YogaCityNYC will suggest ways to not go quietly into that abyss,

with “Do This Now!

I was going through some of my art from the early 1970s, tucked in my attic, and discovered a student book published by Parson’s School of Design right at the time I was graduating. Just a few months ago it seemed as quaint as my Beatle scrapbooks. How far we had come! Now, it is au courant, all over again. Take a look.

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nixxon

barbed-wire

one-small-step

legal-abortion

racism

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That’s nearly one half of a century. We had come so far. We can’t give up that ground.

copyright sharon watts

Parsons School of Design credits:

1/Angelo Foccacio, 2/Bruce Handler, 3/unknown student poster, 4/Tory Ettlinger, 5/Sheryl Saks, 6/Alan Wood, 7/Melissa Schreiber

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Before SoHo Became SoHo-hum

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At about the same time that Rosanna Arquette’s character was “Desperately Seeking Susan,” deep in SoHo, I was in the same neighborhood desperately seeking a new frontier. It was the mid-1980s, and for nearly nine years I bore witness to the once desolate streets paving way to packs of traipsing tourists elbowing me off my own sidewalks. SoHo was no longer my backyard, but becoming a brand.

I moved to Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, a mostly West Indian neighborhood that had taken root during “white flight” in the 1960s. On the corner of Washington Avenue, my once grand prewar building loomed with others along the Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux-designed thoroughfare, in dogged determination. They were up against the invading crack epidemic and race tensions between Lubavitcher Hasidic Jews (who also had a stake in the area known as Crown Heights), and the struggling black community. The exhilaration of uncertainty laced with creative potential zapped me almost the way it had fifteen years previous, when I first moved from the suburbs of Pennsylvania to a down, but not quite out, New York City.

(Ford to City: Drop Dead!)

Across the street I faced the splendor of the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, behind me were doberman pinschers on brownstone rooftops patrolling the drug dens below. I was sandwiched in between, and continued working in my sprawling apartment on my commercial illustration, delivering it to Manhattan clients in person via the IRT.

While SoHo was busy morphing from an art mecca to a shopping mall, there were some genuinely exciting moments, as street art and graffiti blurred with fashion, fame, music, and action. Inevitably, innocence soured into irony that girded the cast iron district, and Art and Commerce clamped together, squeezing out anyone and anything that could no longer survive or no longer wanted to.

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But before the tipping point, living in SoHo was fun and thrilling. I was creating fashion art churned up by street energy and the music on my MTV.

(Beep Beep!)

black T, white jacket

1980 – Steven Meisel’s adult class

Ilsa - fabric collage - 72

Early 1980s – mixed media (fabric, paper, pastel)

Angst - 72

1980 – Steven Meisel adult class

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Miami Vice/Bowie influence (mixed media). And who didn’t have Wayfarer Ray Bans?

Ms. Skein - 72

Ms. Skein ~ Promo for Wool Council (mixed media)

Cut paper

Cut Paper

Hello - cut paper

Cosmopolitan Magazine job – mixed media (Cello-tak & paper)

 

All street photography snatched from the internet.

All art Copyright Sharon Watts

More links to SoHo street art:

The SoHo Memory Project

Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York

I AM THE BEST ARTIST

Carrie Donovan & The Gray Lady & Me

Me- NYT

In 1991, I was being photographed in front of The New York Times building on West 43rd Street, its globed lamps and distinctive typeface serving as focal points while prompts were called out by the photographer, George Lange. My large art portfolio was wedged under my arm, tight against my leather biker jacket-clad torso. With my Great Aunt Lenora’s crocheted scarf cocooning my neck and a tube skirt snug around my legs, I strode down the block like I owned it. Looking slightly up, my face was captured in a smile, crimped along the edges with a bit of self-consciousness.

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I was chosen by The New York Times fashion editor Carrie Donovan—a character right out of the Audrey Hepburn classic film Funny Face—for a Sunday Magazine feature story about Manhattanites deemed to have personal style. Carrie, in her ubiquitous black and leopard prints and super-sized accessories, saw me once a week in whatever ensemble I had thrown together that day; I was also the illustrator she had chosen for her By Design column that appeared Tuesdays in the newspaper’s Style section.

I would enter the mythic, monolithic building from the street and head over to a line-up of phones on a marble ledge, waiting to be called into their roles as liaisons with people higher up in this bastion of journalism. Dialing Carrie’s extension, I passed the receiver to a security guard, then got the nod to go through the turnstiles and over to the elevators. Once I landed on nine, I made my way through a moat of bullpen cubicles, then was given the signal and admittance to Carrie’s inner sanctum. Now I would experience the heady feeling of being the center of her universe for ten minutes, as I presented my art for her approval.

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“This is divine!” she might warble.

Or “Hmmm, don’t you think it’s just a bit de trop?”

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Sometimes, if she was just finishing up the story, I had to do the job entirely on the spot. This last minute deadline would send me around the corner to the design department to borrow art supplies and a surface to work on, a pearl-encrusted fashion gun to my head.

My weekly gig was fun, sometimes stressful, but most of all, a fulfillment of destiny. I had promised myself when I was a teenager that I would one day be in The New York Times. I had meant my artwork, but here I was, like Marlo Thomas in That Girl, and Mary Richards in The Mary Tyler Moore Show, in love with my job, my life, and most of all, my city.

I did this for nearly a decade, during which time Carrie eventually retired and passed the reins of By Design to Anne-Marie Schiro, and The Gray Lady went to color. I still was making my weekly rounds, in person.

That wasn’t Carrie’s final act, however. She went on to be a surprise hit in Old Navy TV ads.

On November 12, 2001, Carrie passed away. I hadn’t noticed, hadn’t realized, hadn’t wondered until much later. I was too caught up in post-9/11 and missed her obituary. When I found out, I was dismayed that this grande dame had quietly left the stage without my being able to say au revoir.

So I’ll say it now. It was a pleasure working with and for you, not a bit de trop, and always divine.

A Blair Affair

1980 - Blair in leather copy

In the late 1970s and early 80s, the punk scene in New York City was settling into a creative humus for artists of every ilk. Even if you didn’t frequent the Mudd Club, its vibe permeated the air and you absorbed it by osmosis. The era’s music dictated the creative arts: Patti Smith was high priestess in her white tattered T-shirts and skinny black jeans. Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine, she snarled in a plaintive three-note mantra. The very notion of “fashion” was tossed in a shredder and literally pinned back together. I was taking an evening fashion drawing class at Parsons School of Design, taught by Steven Meisel, my contemporary, an illustrator for Women’s Wear Daily (just before he went on to achieve superstardom as a photographer). In our very first class he cracked the whip and commanded: FUCK IT UP!  Which meant carving into the drawing pad with our pen as scalpel and excising whatever in our artist-psyches was pretty and polite and safe. Play up the dark, the extreme, the anti-fashion. That was all this “good girl” needed to hear.

Years later I am rediscovering my drawings from that class and remembering that time, along with my friends Michele and Robin. We agree on one thing: Blair was our favorite model. She was petite with short-cropped white-blonde hair and bee-stung red lips, and wore the best fashion retro-mix of anyone I’ve ever known. It was impossible to get a bad drawing of her, she was that good. We didn’t know at the time that she too was a talented artist. Thirty-three years later, Blair Thornley is a successful illustrator and animator whose art looks exactly how I would imagine it to. Wonderful, magical, uniquely Blair-like. Take a peek into her world HERE.

What I found in my attic:

Blair in overcoat 1

copyright sharon watts

Blair on Red - 72

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Blair - KPB style

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Blair in shorts - top

Blair in shorts - bottom copyright sharon watts

We drew on 18 X 24 pads, often still not getting the whole figure on. My drawings from this time don’t fit on the scanner, and despite Robin’s patient tutorial in splicing, I am still fumbling in Photoshop, lost in layers.

Blair on magenta

copyright sharon watts

Blair on blue

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Blair gesture 2&3

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Blair gesture 4

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Blair gesture 5

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blair contour

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Michele Wesen Bryant and I have almost identical drawings, since we were in the same classroom. She has gone on to teach and write, still at the cutting edge as she inspires and guides her fashion design students.  Her archival masterwork of Women’s Wear Daily art is collected in WWD Illustrated: 1960s — 1990s

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copyright Michele Wesen Bryant

CLICK HERE for a post from Michele’s blog MORE FASHION DRAWING, where she shares more art and Steven Meisel stories.

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Robin drew Blair in Richard Rosenfeld’s class at Parsons School of Design in the early 80s, just after Meisel got his first photography break. He never looked back. She and I hired models together in the 90s, but not Blair. By then she was on her own brightly-lit path. Robin is now a successful designer at Robin Read Art & Design.

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The lean and mean street looks of the late 70s and early 80s billowed into the era of MTV, opening the doors for video to become the premier enabler of fashion extremism and celebrity-worship, with the Material Girl muscling her way onto the scene. Ironically, it was Meisel who took some of her earliest photos. Meanwhile, some of our classmates and models and other artist contemporaries were dying of AIDS.

CALLING ALL ANGELS.

all images copyrighted

Plenty of Plaid-itude ~ From Baby Steps to Burberry

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I think I probably learned how to walk wearing plaid. Growing up in the ’50s meant Peter Pan collars and puffed sleeves and plaid (oh my!)

Years later, around the millennium, I would be immersed in Burberry plaid, participating in the company’s makeover from dependable, upper crust yet slightly dowdy British icon to its incarnation of everything hip. Kate Moss modeled and young Japanese fashionistas made a B-line to the NYC 57th Street store. That shopping bag was wallpapering the whole town. Meanwhile, I still couldn’t afford it, didn’t particularly like it, but it was sure fun to draw!

I was hired by the VP of visual display to create a series of iconic British scenes for the flagship store on Regent Street, London, with the loose line and sense of whimsy that had become my trademark. Painted on Arches watercolor paper, my palette was black and white with the traditional beige and red. I lay the line down first, then added the plaid in gouache. Over several years I ended up completing over a hundred paintings for store launches in cities all over the world. After London came New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Paris, and Barcelona. I had plaid Eiffel Towers, and King Kong with a plaid scarf wrapped around his neck as he climbed the (matching) Empire State Building. Barcelona’s Gaudi mosaics were maddeningly plaid, and the Hollywood sign was no longer white, but…Yep. You get the idea.

Campaigns come and go. My paintings that used to adorn all these stores (I even played Vegas) are who knows where, now? The original art was never returned to me, as it should have been. I tried to reclaim it, or at least locate the persons responsible for the accountability, but September 11th had happened and I was distracted and exhausted. To Burberry I was just a vendor. I pushed away all my plaid-painting memories, with nothing left but the aftertaste as a bitter reminder of how so many things in my life had suddenly turned sour.

Last week I got an email out of the blue. A young man in London had been given a piece of framed art from someone’s office in the Regent Street store, after it relocated. A tiny name at the bottom led him to me through some google detective work. Was I the artist, he asked?

Yes, I am.

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This one was a self-promotional mailer:

burberry empire stateAnd below is a tiny fraction of the Burberry art that I did between 1999-2002. Back then, I had no scanner and the discs that I obtained were incomplete.

Click on image to enlarge.

So, I “Heart” New York and I love L.A.! Thanks for the memories of dressing you up in plaid.

Breakfast at Burberry's

CAFEWHAT

CONEYISL

CONFIDEN

OSCAR

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PAPARAZZ

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And one more parting shot, from last year. The scarf was a gift. It is warm.

I still can’t afford Burberry.

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all art copyrights belong to Sharon Watts

Hopping The Pond @1984

This gallery contains 11 photos.

 In 1984, girls just wanted to have fun. And I just wanted to draw, dress up, and watch MTV. Lately I’ve been waxing nostalgic for an era that seems like just a few years ago, surely not the quarter century … Continue reading